Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

Just Add Water

My flowers are drooping, my grass has turned brown and I can literally hear my vegetables begging me for more water.  It makes me a little sad to see them in this state, but with temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s, there is only so much I can do to keep them healthy and robust.  Or is there?

A few years ago, as water restrictions were enforced for the city of Raleigh, I invested in a rain barrel.  At first, I watered all of my plants daily from the rain that had collected in the barrel and felt the smug satisfaction that one feels when conserving … take THAT water restrictions!  My plants were happy, I was happy and I am guessing that in some very small way, Mother Earth was happy.

As the years went on, however, my precious rain barrel became less of a source of sustenance for my plants and more of a source of entertainment for my two daughters as they began to create a variety of soups that only a mother could love.  Soups made from flower petals, rocks, leaves and oh yes, mud.  The rain barrel provided hours of enjoyment for my kids, but alas, it was neglected as a conservation mechanism.

And then the 100 degree heat hit Raleigh.

Although North Carolina is not officially under drought conditions and there are no water restrictions in place, the continued heat made me fear that our water supply was diminishing. One day, as I looked out at my wilting plants and brown lawn, I turned back to my old friend – the rain barrel.  There he stood, full of water and ready to tackle the heat. It was if he was saying “Enough of the playing, let’s get down to business.”

For a few days, this new plan worked out perfectly.  There was more than enough water in the barrel for my plants and my garden.  Everyone thrived.  Everyone was happy.  I was a conservationist again. And then it happened … my rain barrel was dry.  It, too, had succumbed to the heat.

The ironic thing about rain barrels is that they require water just like the plants. They can hold it a bit longer of course, but in the end, no rain means no water.  And so, I made the painful decision to water with (gasp) the hose.  I felt more than a little bit guilty as I looked over at my empty rain barrel with the hose in my hand, but I solemnly told myself that this was only temporary.  Soon, the rain barrel would be full again, and the hose could be put away.

Sure enough, last night we had some rain.  With the natural watering they received, the plants are happy and well nourished.  Cautiously, I glanced into the rain barrel.  It was full.  Welcome back, old friend, I’ve missed you.


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As a student of sustainability, I know the advantages of tracing a product’s life cycle back to it’s origin. I think it is important to know where my food comes from and what the labor conditions are like in the plant where my cell phone was made. I’d love to make every single purchase decision I make based on a sustainability scale that is posted right on the package – kind of like a nutrition guide for busy environmentalists.

But alas, no such guide exists today.  Oh sure, some major manufacturers have tried.  Unilever, for example, offers an online product analyzer which is supposed to look at the environmental footprint of its products, but it is hard to find on their website and even harder to understand.  It doesn’t give me the “warm, fuzzy” feeling that I am looking for or explain where my product was actually made and, even more importantly, what my product was made from.  In fact, I’m not sure the manufacturer even knows the answers to these questions. Which I guess is part of the problem. With huge manufacturers providing us with most of our food, clothing and products, it is hard to trace any product back to its origin.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was given a shirt last week that carried a bright green tag with two simple words:  “trace me.”  Intrigued by this unique request, I went to the website, icebreaker.com, and entered my shirt’s unique “Baacode” which I found conveniently sewed to my shirt.  Up popped two sheep “stations” – the sources of my icebreaker’s merino wool.  Out of 120 stations, my product’s origin had been narrowed down to two and (this is the most amazing part), I could click on videos to meet the farmers and learn more about their farm.  Talk about warm and fuzzy.  I literally felt like I had just purchased my shirt from the farmer himself. Amazing.  Simply Amazing.

I realize that developing a traceable tag for every product is not an easy or inexpensive task. The icebreaker shirts are all made from wool provided by a manageable number of farms in New Zealand and  if I did a cost analysis, I am sure they cost a bit more than their mass-produced counterparts. But that is not the point.  What I find simply amazing is that, with the help of my traceable tag, I can learn more about the product I am purchasing and make decisions based on what is important to me – sustainable products, ethical treatment of people and animals, and environmentally conscious manufacturing.  Better yet, I feel like I just bought a shirt from the farmer down the road.

Try it out for yourself.  Visit icebreaker.com and use my Baacode:  EFF0E2206.  Or, ask for e a demo code.  Visit the farmers, tour the farms and then sit back and think.  Wouldn’t it be crazy if every one of our products offered us this amount of transparency? Imagine the changes that would be made in manufacturing companies around the world if we could see where each of our products come from and how each of our products is made.

‘Trace Me’ technology.  Brilliant.

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I’m not a big fan of hospitals.  Oh, I know the great things that they can do to keep us healthy, but they make me nervous. I’m not exactly sure why.  It could be because I don’t understand the medical lingo.  It could be because of the pain and suffering that I know lies behind the patient doors and I am unable to offer any assistance.  It could be a variety of things, but most recently it is because I have witnessed the tremendous amount of waste and inefficient energy use that flows out of hospitals and I am unable to see how to offer sustainable recommendations without risking a decline in quality patient care.  There’s a fine line between a sterile first-time use of medical equipment and  a sterilized, re-manufactured second-time use of the same equipment. I’m not exactly sure why, but as a culture we have in our minds that only first time use is acceptable. Especially if you are the patient that is using the equipment.

I read a report in the Scientific American recently that said that health care facilities dispose of more than four million pounds of medical waste each year. That certainly seems like a lot of waste, but I didn’t realize how much of it is unnecessary until I spent a few nights in the hospital last week. As a hospital patient I was relieved to see that my equipment, surgical tools, syringes and other medical devices were all sterilized, in their own bags and seemingly unused by other humans.  But as an environmentalist, a part of me cringed each time I saw another piece of waste hit the trash can.  Even worse, some of the waste had not even been used, but was part of a larger “kit” of supplies.  Double cringe.

And yet every time I was administered a drug, I was relieved to see that each of my syringes, IVs and tubes were individually wrapped and new.  If one of my syringes had come with a “made from 30% recyclable material” sticker on it, I might have sent it back and requested a brand new one.  But why is that?  I have no trouble eating my food off of reusable dishes.  I reuse my water bottle on a daily basis and I am quite certain it is not cleaned under the most sterile of conditions.  I reuse toothbrushes, contacts, and other toiletries regularly.  All of these are by no mean sterile, but are being put into my body.  What makes it so different?

The answer, I’m afraid, lies in the fact that we have come to equate “quality medical care” with “single use” devices.  Despite the fact that much of the medical equipment and supplies we use today can be “reprocessed” to be as high quality as first time use, many of us (myself included) prefer to see that the supplies being used on us have not been used by others.  And so, the medical waste piles up as  elastic bandages, pressure infuser bags, tourniquet cuffs, drills, compression sleeves, and general-use surgical scissors are thrown into the trash can rather than put aside to be reprocessed – cleaned, sterilized, and tested for quality – and individually wrapped for another patient’s use.

Unfortunately, the waste is not occurring just in hospitals. After developing a slight infection following my surgery two weeks ago, I was required to take a twice-daily infusion of an antibiotic.  Only not in the hospital – this infusion I would do at home.  The day I arrived home, I received a huge box filled with elastomeric (accuflo) pumps, saline syringes, heparin syringes, alcohol wipes, bandages, surgical tape and a lot of other supplies that I’m not even sure how to use.  Twice a day, I get an infusion and use one pump, two saline syringes, and two heparin syringes. If I’m doing the math right, that equates to 28 pumps and 112 syringes over the 2 week period that I received the infusions. And they all get thrown in the trash when I am done.  I had inquired about how to recycle them and received a funny look in return.  So each day my trash can fills up with the used medical supplies.  Supplies I’m very sure could be reprocessed if given a chance.

I am not a medical expert or an expert in hospitality sustainability, but I am a medical consumer. Although I want my medical environment to be as safe and sterile as possible, I know that there must be a way to reduce the waste associated with it.  We cannot continue to throw this waste into our landfills and assume that it will do no harm.  If it can be used to improve the health of one person, we certainly don’t want it to cause harm to another down the road.

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My neighbor has a beautiful lawn. It is the envy of many domestic mowers in the neighborhood, and I would imagine some professional mowers as well. Because I know his family eats a strictly vegetarian and organic diet, I am pretty sure he uses no pesticides on his lawn. But what is more remarkable than that, he uses a push mower.  Yes, his lawn is beautiful and he uses a push mower.  No, we are not living in the 1950’s.

I first noticed the mower when I was sitting outside enjoying a beautiful Spring day. There was a nice breeze blowing and I could hear the birds singing.  I glanced over and saw my neighbor pushing his mower and there was … no sound. That’s not entirely correct – there were plenty of sounds.  Birds chirping, children laughing, the sound of the UPS delivery truck as it made its rounds through our neighborhood.  But there was no loud roar from a 7.25 ft-lb gross torque gas engine.  I do not actually know what that means, I looked it up.

My point is this.  His mower was noiseless because it had no engine.  And no engine means no carbon emissions. It also means no noise and apparently it leads to a beautiful lawn. I became very jealous and immediately told my husband about it when he came home from work. Which is how we ended up with a noiseless, engine-less, beautiful push mower of our own.  Our old mower was on its last leg and we decided to take the sustainable path – a push mower guaranteed to give us a lawn as beautiful (or more beautiful) than it was before.

Almost before my husband could take the mower out of the box to make its maiden voyage across our lawn, my two daughters wanted to help.  Because the mower has no engine, it is also very light.  So my 7- and 8-year old girls were able to easily push the mower around the yard, watching the grass clippings fly out and laughing with glee.  Yet another benefit of a push mower – extra helpers.

It wasn’t until my husband and I looked out at the newly mowed lawn, our two tired daughters at our side, that we realized the one downfall of our new machine.  It does not cut weeds. In between the lovely groomed grass were ugly spikes of crab grass. Towering above the grass blades and taunting us.

“That can’t be right,” I said to my husband, “we must have done something wrong.”  I raced inside to look up the online owners manual and it stated without apologies, “If grass over 6″ long or tall weeds are present, they may be knocked down by the mower’s front fork assembly. If this happens, either pull these long stragglers by hand or make a second mowing pass to try and cut them.

I looked at my two tired daughters.  They certainly would be no help in pulling the long stragglers by hand.  I looked at my husband.  Without giving it a second thought, he returned to the garage, took out the old gas-powered mower, started it up and noisily re-mowed the grass.  Problem taken care of … for now.

We now own two lawn mowers.  One is a environmentalist’s dream – except it won’t cut down the weeds.  The other will cut down everything in its path, but is loud and not environmentally friendly.  The right thing to do is pull up all the weeds by hand.  But that, I’m afraid, might take us awhile.  In the meantime, I’ll let my little workers rest and try it again next weekend. Anyone interested in a crab-grass pulling party?

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I am an environmentalist. I am an environmentalist.  I am an environmentalist.  

No matter how I say it, I end up questioning this statement just a little bit. I am about to graduate from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment with a Masters in Environmental Management, but I just can’t quite bring myself to call myself an environmentalist.  I have the education to be one.  I have the passion and the inspiration.  So, what is holding me back from announcing to the world, “I AM AN ENVIRONMENTALIST?”

Well, for one thing, I don’t always act like one.  It’s not that I don’t want to live sustainably. It’s just that over the years I have built up habits and beliefs that are too difficult to change.  Or at least too difficult to change easily.

Some of these habits. like the fact that I LOVE to travel, will never change.  If each of us is given a certain level of carbon that we are allowed to use up, I might very well use it all on traveling.  There are just too many interesting and beautiful places to visit in the world.  And watching “The Amazing Race” from my cozy couch is NOT the same thing as being there.

Some of my habits have formed because I have grown up in this great land of plenty.  We have everything at our fingertips and often don’t realize the trip our purchases had to take to get here.  Our food, our electronics, even our clothes, are sometimes made under un-sustainable and un-environmentally friendly conditions.  But with the swipe of a credit card, I can purchase just about anything and easily close my mind to who (or what) might be suffering to get it to me.

Recently, some unsustainable habits have developed because I have two adorable children.  Our lives move quickly and I often don’t have the time to think through my decisions. Fast food, handheld electronic games and television have become a part of our lives.  Getting ourselves outside to enjoy the world around us can be challenging, especially with hockey practice, piano lessons and all the other pulls on our precious time.

I’ll admit it.  It’s easy to continue through my day without making any changes. It’s a nice routine. But unless we start to look at the world more globally and think about how our everyday decisions and actions might affect our planet, our children and grandchildren may have to make some difficult choices.

It’s a confusing world.  I know that I need to make some changes in my life.  And I know a lot of ways to do it.  The trick is to actually take the steps and start changing my habits.

So, that’s me … I am a CONFUSED environmentalist. But I am an environmentalist and I am going to work my way through the changes I need to make to live in a more sustainable world. Come join me in my journey!

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